To the editor:
Finally, the rewrite of the Town of Chatham’s zoning laws is near completion. However, the evolution of Section 180‐58, Part Z, which governs “Short Term Rental and Investment Properties for Rent”, is of great concern to me. Operators of these short-term rental (STR) properties — some local, some from out-of-town — are rightly concerned that the Town is adopting an increasingly confrontational stance toward their right to earn a legal income. It is my view that the Town Supervisor and Council wish to use STR registration as a means not only for raising additional revenue from residents via special use permits (SUPs), but also for continuing to implement a regime of dubiously legal selective permission and enforcement.
Work began on the Town of Chatham’s Comprehensive Plan more than 15 years ago. Town residents, not the government, came together to give their earnest input and to put to paper their vision of the town’s future. In 2009, after a painstaking process of presentations, review, and debate, the plan was finally adopted. By and large, I believe the plan is a good thing; it reflects the citizens’ wishes and values and retains the Town’s rural character with an eye toward sensible development. Inexplicably, the town supervisor and council at the time stonewalled the plan’s implementation for years.
In 2015, a proposed tennis camp for underprivileged (read: downstate minority) children and a special use permit (SUP) sought by the property owner exposed a very ugly side of some of its neighbors and our government. This application resulted in a one-year SUP moratorium being invoked by the town board and subsequently extended two more times and another eighteen months. Clearly, the sole purpose of the moratorium was to wear down the applicant and scuttle the project. The Council, the Supervisor, and the neighbors ultimately succeeded, in a blow to individual property rights.
I attended a public hearing on Sept. 26, 2018, to comment on Part Z of the proposed zoning regulations. Most of the opinions offered at that hearing appeared to be pro-STR; two were neutral; one was anti-STR. My own comments were pro-property rights. Registration unjustly infringes on property owners’ right to privacy, as well as their right to use their property for any legal purpose while not infringing on their neighbors’ quiet enjoyment of their own property.
On Jan. 24, 2019 the Town Council released the final draft of the proposed zoning regulations. For comparison, most of the parts in Section 180-58 take up a third to a half of a page each. The second largest section, regarding solar farms, is under three pages. In under six months, and under largely opaque circumstances, Part Z ballooned from three-and-a-half to over eleven pages. Most notably, language was added to prohibit non-resident property owners from engaging in STR businesses and lays out an onerous, intrusive, and expensive enforcement regime.
The lack of courtesy, transparency and accountability on the part of the Supervisor and Council surrounding Part Z has been appalling. At the last minute, and at the beginning of the March 21 board meeting, the Town Council tabled an agenda item to present STR “frequently asked questions,” despite several out-of-town STR owners having traveled some distance to participate in the discussion. Further, no town council meeting minutes have been posted to the Town website for the citizens to review since July 2018. Clearly, the board is using its ends to justify its means, and its actions lead one to believe that the Town Supervisor and Council do not want to have a conversation about STRs, or let the citizens know what conversations have been had, with whom.
Placing the proposed user restrictions under the aegis of “safety” is a falsehood; services like VRBO and Airbnb are self-policing. Guests look for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and unsafe/unclean conditions and rate properties accordingly. Hosts rate guests based on what condition their properties have been left in. In short, bad hosts don’t get new guests; bad guests don’t get to rent again. The fact is, the economic effect of out of town guests staying and spending money locally, rather than in Rensselaer County or Hudson, far outweighs the fiscal benefit of regulation. Columbia County already suffers from an acute shortage of suitable visitor lodging. STRs in Chatham provide an upscale and more rural lodging experience than one might receive elsewhere in Columbia County. Most importantly, people staying in the Town of Chatham will spend money and pay sales tax in our Town and in the Village, supporting jobs here in Chatham.
The Town Council has scheduled an STR “workshop” on April 4 at the Town Hall. I encourage all rights-minded citizens to attend this workshop and to make their voices part of the public record – it is likely that the Supervisor and Council will wrongly equate the silence of the majority with consent. If Part Z is implemented as currently proposed, an Article 78 action will no doubt be filed. I would ask the Supervisor and Council to take pause and consider whether the potential expense of defending such an action is in the Town taxpayers’ best interest. I would argue strongly that it is not.
W. Cody Anderson